This month's column is written in the middle of the year's biggest event devoted strictly to the cabling industry—BICSI's Winter Conference. Yes, you can look at the calendar, see that the conference was held January 12-14, and conclude that once again about the only piece of writing I produced for this issue of the magazine was the very last piece to be completed. (It's good to be able to make my own rules.)
And it was good to be at the conference last month. As usual, there was much activity and plenty of industry vendors who had something new to talk about. Many of those vendors had optimistic visions of 2004, but I noticed the optimism far different from last year's.
That's right, I said last year's optimism. A year ago at this time, at this same event, vendor after vendor told me they were looking forward to 2003 as the year things would turn around, business would be better, history says that the impending war is likely to be good for the economy, blah-blah-blah. This year, the blah-blah-blah is backed up by reports of strong fourth-quarter 2003 revenues. For the first time in a long time, product manufacturers are talking about a recent solid quarter.
Another trend can be summed up by the four words of an executive in a cabling-system manufacturing organization that has long advocated foiled/screened twisted-pair cable: "I told you so." I was on the phone with this gentleman a few months ago, and when the topic turned to new technologies—10-gigabit speeds in particular—he reminded me of the challenges facing the IEEE group that is hammering out the specifications for 10-Gigabit Ethernet over copper cabling. With a projected publication date more than two years away, that group is at the point where many observers wonder, "How in the world are they going to make that happen?"
One of the steps, so it seems, will be to test twisted-pair cabling at 625 MHz. That means Category 6 cable—tested to 250 MHz per TIA standards and requiring useable bandwidth at 200 MHz—will be subject to analysis at much higher frequencies and, if it is going to carry 10-GbE traffic, it will have to perform well at that high frequency.
One of the conundrums for the IEEE working group is alien crosstalk. Energize those twisted pairs up to such a high frequency, and I wouldn't be shocked if you could actually hear the hum. The signal bleed from one cable to another introduces noise that will not easily be overcome. My guess is that ultimately, 10-GbE will be specified over Cat 6 UTP with maximum distances far shorter than 100 meters.
Introduce an overall shield to that Cat 6 cable and you're in 10-gig business. A single overall shield that surrounds all four pairs of a Cat 6 will, I think, instantly cure the alien-crosstalk dilemma. So, back those few months ago when I was talking to this executive at the cabling-system maker, I understood what he was saying, but was also well aware of his vested interest and figured he was trying to climb back on his familiar soapbox.
But here at the conference, something else happened that changed my thinking. I attended a presentation hosted by several vendors, one of which is a cable manufacturer with representatives who participate in these very IEEE efforts. Within the first minute of the presentation, foiled twisted-pair cable was mentioned. That was the first time in a long time, maybe the first time ever, that FTP cable—the downtrodden stepchild among cable types for as long as I have been covering this industry—was given billing equal to that of UTP and optical-fiber cable. So, don't be surprised if, when the topic of 10-gig is on the table, cabling manufacturers start discussing the benefits of FTP cable.
Of course, beyond what the vendors are saying and doing, your needs and demands as installers and users of cabling systems are what will really drive any change in the marketplace. If your long-term plans include the installation or use of 10-GbE over copper cable, understand that foiled (or screened, as it's often called) cable may be a part of your reality.
Even if that type of transmission is in your future, it's probably your distant future. We're a couple of years away from standardization, and probably even further away from mainstream industry use. Let's hope that by then, we all will have many consecutive good quarters of business behind us.